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Zimmerman establishes pole position

Friday, January 30, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

As one of their first acts as a body, City Council members examined, then approved, a routine contract for up to $10 million of steel poles for Austin Energy.

Council Member Don Zimmerman pulled the proposed contract with TransAmerican Power Products, Inc. for extra scrutiny and abstained from an otherwise unanimous vote.

Zimmerman lamented the fact that he was being asked to vote on the contract without knowing the particulars of the project, and said that those particulars couldn’t be discerned from reading through the 60 to 70 pages of backup he was given.

“I’m an engineering geek, so I love all of this stuff,” said Zimmerman. “There’s an ordinance in place that prevents me, as an elected representative, from directly communicating with the suppliers that answer these RFPs. … If we voted to approve what is on the agenda here, that noncontact period would continue until documents are actually signed.

“I can’t get specific questions answered,” Zimmerman continued. “In fact, for the $10 million that we would be asked to vote on, I’m not sure how many units — how many poles — we are being asked to vote on.”

Austin Energy Chief Operating Officer Cheryl Mele explained that the cost was based on the types of units and the historical usage, not the exact volume. Mele said the utility’s actual usage will vary based on the types of products that come in through the length of the contract.

Zimmerman said that while he could understand how great that flexibility would be, it posed a problem for him as an elected official.

“I can’t be certain what it is I am voting for,” said Zimmerman.

Zimmerman was told that, if he has specific questions about the contract, he could go through the city’s Purchasing Office to have those questions answered without directly speaking to those bidding on the contract, which is prohibited under city code.

Mayor Steve Adler said that he “personally appreciated” the questions Zimmerman asked during the meeting and the items he pulled during the Council work session.

“I’m going to be really impressed if, over the course of the term, you’re able to do a real, significant, independent investigation of each one of those charges,” said Adler. “My hope is, as we work more and more with the staff, and we learn more and more how all of that works, that all of us will get to a place of confidence where we can delegate those kinds of determinations.”

Zimmerman said that he appreciated the affirmation, but didn’t want to be caught in the same position that Enron executives were in the early 2000s.

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